New head coach, lots of new starters for Brookfield gridders

Luke, freshly graduated from college, faces rebuilding task

By PAUL STURM, LCL Sports Editor
Their "Bell Game" Linn County rivalry battle at Brookfield's Burlington Field looming next week, the 2021 Brookfield and Marceline high school football teams tested each other during their head-to-head segment of last Friday's "jamboree' scrimmages at Macon. Here, new starting quarterback Colton Parn prepares to deliver a pass to an outside target during last week's segment against Marceline.

By PAUL STURM, LCL Sports Editor

After three sub-par (by historical BHS pigskin standards) seasons, Scott Stevens guided the Brookfield High School football Bulldogs back to level ground in the COVID-19-taxed 2020 season, then stepped down from the head coaching post to slide into the athletics director’s chair.

Chosen to take the helm of the Brookfield gridiron ship – its crew significantly lightened by graduation – was Cory Luke, freshly graduated from college (Central Methodist University at Fayette) and his own playing career, which included very successful high school competition in the 8-man style of play.

“It wasn’t a difficult transition for me (from 8- to 11-man),” Luke shared with the LCL in a June telephone interview.

“In both 11-man and 8-man, there’s a ball and you’ve got to tackle the guy with the ball. … The concepts and the schemes and coverages are different, but, at the end of the day, football’s football.”

What will be different for Brookfield this year will be a significant chunk of its lineup. Only eight lettermen are back from the 5-5 2020 campaign which ended, despite being a loss, on a relatively-high note with a strong battle against eventual Class 2 state runnerup Kansas City: St. Pius X.

After a 4-4 regular season which saw the novel coronavirus prevent the game against Clark County from being played, the Bulldogs paddled traditionally-tough Lawson 44-0 at Burlington Field before falling to the SPX Warriors, undefeated champions of the predominantly-Classes 3 and 4 Midland Empire Conference, by a rather-tight 20-6 margin on the road in the district semifinals.

Unfortunately for the 2021 prospects of the blue and white, for 14 members of that squad which tested St. Pius X, it was their final high school game. That group included subsequent Missouri Football Coaches Association All-State second-team defensive end Dawson Baker, the team’s top four ballcarriers, both quarterbacks who saw action, the top passcatcher, multiple offensive linemen, and all but one of the ’Dogs’ top 11 in total 2020 tackles, not to mention virtually all of those who came up with takeaways.

While three both-ways starters – Jadan Abongo, Peyton Armstrong and Trent Polley – are back for their senior years, the new coach will be integrating a gob of new starters into the starting units.

Simultaneously, he’s introducing a new offensive approach aimed at spreading the ball around all across the field, rather than the traditional power-running, straight-ahead type of approach long used by Brookfield.

With little choice to do otherwise, the new coach is enthusiastic about what he sees as opportunities for his players, his team, and himself.

“We look to be able to sprad the ball around to many different ‘skill position’ guys,” Luke shared with media during the summer about his outlook for the ’21 Bulldogs.

“Super excited to see a young core group of guys get bigger roles in a new style of offense,” he expanded. “I’m also looking forward to seeing our group of seniors and upperclassmen lead by example.”

While a large number of prospects are out for the program as freshmen, numbers were a bit scant in the upper three grades, it was observed at the recent public intrasquad scrimmage, so both inexperience and depth could be significant obstacles to game success as the upcoming season unfolds.

How the new coach deploys his offensive personnel could strategically vary from game to game and even within a game.

While sophomore Colton Parn, who didn’t have a single, varsity-level offensive touch of the ball last fall, will get the start at quarterback at home against Trenton this Friday, Luke also had returning wide receiver Abongo take some snaps from center during the Aug. 14 intrasquad scrimmage. Whether that was a precautionary measure, in case the smallish Parn is sidelined by injury at some points, or a “wrinkle” Brookfield’s attack might unveil occasionally remains to be seen.

Jadan Abongo of the Brookfield High School football Bulldogs leaps to make a catch during last year's "Bell Game" victory at Marceline. He is one of only three returning starters – all 2-way performers – for the 2021 Bulldogs.

Getting the ball to senior Abongo, fellow wide receivers Gambal Staddie (jr.) and John Walgren (soph.), and running back Amos Baum (jr.) “in space” via quick lateral throws and sweeps seemingly will be a priority in the new offensive system.

In terms of ballcarrying, when run inside, senior Tommy Gunn will provide power. After being a reserve lineman as a sophomore, junior Gavin Rodriguez has been transplanted to the offensive backfield.

Polley also has been relocated from offensive tackle to tight end, where he still can be an integral part of the blocking scheme, especially for trying to seal the edge for the wide running and quick-passing plays, while also using his good frame (6’1”, 190 pounds) to be a big target for over-the-middle throws.

Inside, only center Armstrong (about 5’11”, 250 pounds) is back in place. Initially, the new Brookfield head coach reports, he’ll be surrounded by new starters Austin Tucker and Coner Simons (jr.) at guard and seniors Jase Thurlo and Shane Owens at tackle.

Defense-wise, Polley returns at linebacker after being a very close second to graduated defensive back Donavan Parn in total tackles in 2020 with 90. Honorable mention all-conference as a junior, he had two solo stops behind the line of scrimmage and helped on two others and recovered one fumble.

He’ll be joined at ’backer – at least in the opener – by Rodriguez and Baum.

Up front, Armstrong will anchor the line at tackle with Tucker alongside in the middle. The ends are due to be Simons and Thurlo.

The secondary will see safeties Staddie and C. Parn joined by cornerbacks Abongo and freshman Kendrell Carter. Walgren also could see time there.

Of the goals of the 4-2-5 defensive alignment – Baum will be a combination linebacker/defensive back, Luke lists them as “shut down the run and get after the quarterback.”

With so many vacancies to fill, the new Brookfield coach tacitly admits there’ll be some adjustments necessitated as he sees more and more of the new starters in game competition.

“Put the players in the best position to make plays,” he describes his intentions. “If you do that as a coach, that’s all you can ask for.”

In terms of the season’s competition, the Clarence Cannon Conference projects to be rugged yet again, making it challenging for inexperienced Brookfield to match its 2-wins league mark of a season ago.

“I’m not ever going to back down from a challenge,” Luke told the LCL in early June. “I realize how prolific this conference is and how incredible a lot of the teams are, but I’ll put our guys up against a lot of them. I’m excited to play some of that good competition.”

Friday’s season opener against a Trenton squad coming off a winless (0-8) campaign does seem to offer a welcome chance to get Luke’s first coaching win under his belt, but that’s no sure thing.

Week two will bring around the “Bell Game” clash with eastern neighbor Marceline. While the Bulldogs have had the prize the past two years, winning decisively last year (42-7) with the help of a couple of second-half pass interception returns for scores, the fact that MHS’ Tigers return essentially intact with a senior-filled starting lineup will test the inexperienced ’Dogs severely.

“We’ve got some dudes that are going to knock you in the mouth,” the new BHS coach observed during the offseason. “I can tell that they’re winners.”

While the Missouri State High School Activities Association won’t announce its 2021 prep football classifications and district assignments until Friday, it seems certain BHS will remain Class 2 in football. How the district layout shakes out is the unknown.